This well-researched historical fiction by Willig takes us to Barbados during the period in which tensions were building from increasing resistance to slavery. Slavery was effectively abolished in most of the British colonies as of 1834. Prior to that time Barbados was governed by a “plantocracy” made possible by the “blood, tears and death” of millions of enslaved Africans, per Kevin Farmer, the deputy director of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society. The novel moves back and forth between 1812 and 1854, so we get to know some of the same characters both before and after the elimination of slavery.
But Willig is known for the romances in her novels as much as for their historical aspects, and this story is no exception. In both time periods we follow romantic entanglements that are related to one another, even if the characters don’t realize it.
The characters mostly are associated with two large, neighboring plantations. One is Peverills, the home, in 1812, of Charles and Robert Davenant. The other is Beckles, the home of Mary Anne Beckles, who, at 19, is the ward – until she marries – of her greedy and controlling uncle, Colonel Lyons. Descendants of these two families also feature in 1854, but it takes a while before we figure out just how everyone fits together.
As in many novels that connect two periods in time, the chapters cleverly echo each other in plot developments.
In 1812, Charles Davenant has returned to Barbados from England after his father’s death in order to manage Peverills. Likewise in 1854, Emily Dawson travels from England to Barbados upon finding out she inherited Peverills from her recently deceased grandfather.
Once in Barbados, Emily discovered, to her dismay, that Peverills was never repaired after having been destroyed by fire in the slave uprising of 1816. Having nowhere to stay, she accepted an offer for accommodations from Mrs. Davenant, who owned the neighboring plantation, Beckles. But Mrs. Davenant (nee Beckles) seemed to be trying to prevent Emily from finding out just what she had inherited and why.
Emily finally managed to break free of Mrs. Davenant’s grasp quite by chance. She arranged a visit to her late grandfather’s business partner, Mr. Turner, in Bridgetown. Just then cholera struck the island, and it became unsafe for her to leave the house to return to Beckles. Having been a nursing aid in England, she offered to spend the time assisting Mr. Turner’s nephew, Nathaniel Braithwaite, a physician overwhelmed with work.
[Between May and August 1854, some 20-25,000 died of cholera in Barbados, or about 15% of the population. At the height of the epidemic in Bridgetown in July, there were between 300 and 400 deaths daily. Most of the victims were black, since slaves lived in more crowded, less sanitary conditions than did the white elite, but whites were not spared. See Kenneth F. Kiple, “Cholera and Race in the Caribbean,” Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1 (May, 1985), pp. 157-177, online here.]
Willig puts slaves and slavery at the center of her story, especially in the 1812 sections, albeit acknowledging in her “Historical Note” that while she includes a female slave as a protagonist, it is difficult to know the truth of the internal lives of enslaved women. She writes that relationships between the men on the island and female slaves were a well-known occurrence, and that there were numerous children born from their unions (who by law were also slaves because of the legal status of the mothers). But there are no records of how the women felt about these relationships – whether, as Willig writes, they cared for the planters, or merely submitted to them. In either scenario, they did not have a choice. Most of the documentation she found in her research about these enslaved women came from second-hand materials: either the writings of visitors from England, or of white Barbadian planters, who focused on complaining about the recalcitrance of slaves to cater to their every whim. Since slaves tended to be illiterate (kept that way to reduce the threat to the plantocracy), their own voices were suppressed.
The slave Jenny is by far the best character in the book. Her struggles with her own feelings, and her awareness of the factors determining them, were powerfully portrayed. One can only hope there were women with her mettle among the slave population, even while we have cause to weep for her situation.
We also become acquainted with “Redlegs,” or poor whites who actually made up some 60% of Barbadian whites. The planter class, while contemptuous of these whites, needed them to fill menial positions in the infrastructure and to police the blacks, who greatly outnumbered whites. (This article from the BBC goes into the origins of slavery in Barbados as well as the demographics of the island.)
As we get to know Emily, Jenny, Mary Anne, and – to a lesser extent – the male characters, we also become privy to the secrets that Emily eventually unravels. In addition, with the insight we get from two different time periods, we learn more than Emily could ever know. This enables us to evaluate the characters and their choices with a great deal more sympathy than they extended even to themselves.
Evaluation: The author takes a bit of time to set up the story, and it seems complicated at first until one gets all the pieces in place. But it is worth persevering. The shapes of the drama gradually come into focus just as interpersonal tensions and romantic liaisons are multiplying. This is a rewarding story that will teach you a great deal about sugar plantation life in the Caribbean as you become enmeshed in the love, heartbreak, and redemption of the characters.
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2019